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Thomas Keneally, the bestselling author of The Daughters of Mars and Schindler’s List, returns with an exquisite exploration of community and country, love and morality, taking place in both prehistoric and modern Australia.
An award-winning documentary filmmaker, Shelby Apple is obsessed with reimagining the full story of the Learned Man—a prehistoric man whose remains are believed to be the link between Africa and ancient Australia. From Vietnam to northern Africa and the Australian Outback, Shelby searches for understanding of this enigmatic man from the ancient past, unaware that the two men share a great deal in common.
Some 40,000 years in the past, the Learned Man has made his home alongside other members of his tribe. Complex and deeply introspective, he reveres tradition, loyalty, and respect for his ancestors. Willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good, the Learned Man cannot conceive that a man millennia later could relate to him in heart and feeling.
In this “meditation on last things, but still electric with life, passion and appetite” (The Australian), Thomas Keneally weaves an extraordinary dual narrative that effortlessly transports you around the world and across time, offering “a hymn to idealism and to human development” (Sydney Morning Herald).
The inventive but disappointing 33rd novel from Keneally (Schindler's Ark) centers on the improbable but resonant parallels between an Australian documentary filmmaker and Learned Man, a 42,000-year-old predecessor of the Australian aborigines. After a prolific career, Shelby Apple is in his late 70s when he's diagnosed with esophageal cancer, causing him to reflect on his life. His first documentary was on aboriginal eye disease and, after winning an Academy Award for a film on the Vietnam War, he began working with Peter Jorgenson, a geomorphologist who first discovered the skeleton of Learned Man. As Apple ponders his legacy, he decides to renew an old petition to the Australian government to have Learned Man returned to his original resting place from museum storage. Apple's remembrances transport him to prehistoric Australia, and the narrative becomes interspersed with Learned Man's own exchanges as a clan elder. Learned Man mourns the loss of his son, cherishes his wife, and struggles to understand and perform his duties as a judge and punisher. While the intriguing premise allows Keneally to delve into themes of leaving a legacy and man's place within nature, unfortunately, both characters remain underdeveloped and Learned Man's narrative is delivered in dry prose. This won't go down as one of Keneally's better works.